Want to catch a stringer of fat crappie for an early fish fry without burning a tankful of valuable gasoline? Give one of these close-in hotspots a try. (February 2007)
Slabs like this pair caught at Fort Gibson by J.T. Griffin can be found at lakes within a short drive of either Tulsa or Oklahoma City.
Photo courtesy of Jeff Phillips.
It's February, and while Old Man Winter will be at his miserable work on and off for a while yet, spring is coming.
And that's something for Sooner State crappie anglers dreaming of a fish fryer filled with a limit of scrumptious crappie filets to look forward to -- even if those slab fanciers happen to find themselves living right smack-dab in the middle of the Oklahoma City and Tulsa metropolitan areas! And in today's world of high-priced gasoline, reports of top-quality fishing close to home should certainly come as welcome news.
OKLAHOMA CITY CRAPPIE WATERS
According to Kurt Kuklinski, a fisheries research biologist at the Oklahoma Fishery Research Lab in Norman, two waters that should interest crappie anglers come immediately to mind: Arcadia Lake and Lake Thunderbird.
Lying a mere 15-minute commute from downtown Oklahoma City, the first of those covers 1,800 acres near Edmond. "Historically, (Arcadia) has had an overpopulated, stunted crappie population," Kuklinski said, "but our most recent netting samples are showing that is no longer the case. Now we're seeing a good quantity of fish, and we're seeing large fish, crappie more in the 10- to 12-inch range that our anglers are targeting."
Why is that? "It's probably forage-related," he proposed. "We have a lot better forage base out there now, shad wise. And to some degree, our anglers have helped us. When it was a stunted population, we encouraged anglers to harvest a lot of the stunted fish so that the leftover fish would grow bigger."
The municipal water-supply lake's level is subject to fluctuation, but at press time, Arcadia was, in Kuklinski's words, "a good 5 feet down." Despite that, the small venue continues to support a serviceable quantity of crappie-friendly habitat.
"It's basically two small rivers that are dammed up to create the lake, so it has a good water-depth change throughout," Kuklinski explained. "In the uppermost reaches of the lake, it's a lot more shallow and turbid, but downlake toward the dam the water becomes a lot clearer and has a lot more depth."
The biologist reported that fisheries crews' netting samples generally reveal the most crappie off the lake's rocky points, bedrock, and boulder/cobble areas in the deeper water of the lake's lower half. He also pointed out that the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation has installed a number of fish attractors in the lake.
"We put in cedar trees to attract fish for the anglers, and we have a covered fishing dock at one of the boat ramps," Kuklinski said. "There is some habitat in there (at the fishing dock), and anglers do really well there throughout the winter and into spring."
As a general rule, Kuklinski stated, Arcadia gets "fired up" for spring crappie angling within the mid-to-late-April timeframe. "That's when the fish begin to move up shallow and become accessible to shore-anglers," he said. "When they do, they're active, and will bite just about anything. A lot of the anglers that I've talked to will use one rod with a minnow and a slip-bobber rig and another rigged with a jighead that has a small 2-inch Mr. Twister style plastic curlytail grub or a Sassy Shad on it. They'll bite those as readily as they will live bait."
The second OKC-area crappie lake that Kuklinski recommends is Lake Thunderbird, a 6,000-acre water body to the east of Norman. "Again, we're basically talking about two rivers that are dammed up," he said, "so there are basically two arms on Thunderbird, which is almost a horseshoe shaped lake. As you get uplake toward the rivers, the lake is a little more turbid, shallow, and has some timber. But once again, as you get downlake, the water is a lot deeper, and it clears up."
According to Kuklinski, "T-Bird" is a little less rocky than is Arcadia, having more bedrock, sandstone, and main-lake points of a more clay-based, sandy nature. "There is not a lot of natural rock, cover, or vegetation on Thunderbird," he said. "It's pretty devoid of all of that. There are more open flats on this lake."
Before you conclude, however, that T-Bird doesn't offer much habitat for the slabs and, thus, opportunity for crappie anglers, think again. "If we're talking in the springtime, when most anglers are out after them, crappie are going to be caught in specific areas like the riprap along the dam," Kuklinski said. "You can really catch them there in spring. You can also catch crappie in other riprap areas like Twin Bridges and Little River, where it flows into the lake."
Kuklinski urged anglers not to overlook the ODWC's creation of crappie-fishing hotspots. "We have done a lot of habitat work in there," he said. "And there are cedar-tree brushpiles that are marked with buoys. Those are pretty accessible for boat anglers. If you want to throw one in for the bank-anglers, I'd say, basically, any one of the boat ramp areas on the lake that have some riprap; people are always catching crappie in such places in the spring. Regardless of which ones you go to, if you'll get around riprap near these easy access boat ramps, you can catch crappie."
The biologist still recalls that the lake used to contain a sad population of stunted slabs. But thanks to the efforts of a couple of biologists, saugeyes, a natural predator on crappie, were stocked, bringing down the number of small crappie in the lake.
"Now we are getting some really good growth in there," Kuklinski said, "and it is becoming more common to end up with 10- to 12-inch fish in the 3/4- to 1-pound range. Plus, at a number of the bait shops around the lake, you are always seeing pictures now of 2- to 3-pound crappie coming out of there."
The bottom line for T-Bird? In Kuklinski's view, it's an OKC-metro-area fishing success story. "It's good to excellent every year," he concluded, "and it's one of our better lakes."
And: It's within an easy drive of the state Capitol!
TULSA CRAPPIE WATERS
Even as the OKC metro area has a couple of good crappie waters within the shadow of its skyline, so too does Tulsa Town. In fact, Jeff Phillips, managing director for the Broken Arrow-based ARC Outdoors (a company that manufactures the Arctic Shield and X-Scent hunting products and clothing lines), says that two lakes -- Fort Gibson and Oologah -- regularly tempt him to
leave the office a little early.
The first of those is Phillips' favorite. "(Fort Gibson)'s a pretty good-sized lake," he said. "About 19,900 acres. And it's in the Arkansas River basin on the Grand, or Neosho, River. "It has a lot of creeks that flow into it -- some very large coves. And it is kind of a long, windy, skinny lake."
That said, Phillips went on to note that Fort Gibson features, as he put it, a "good mix between deep and shallow water." Add in willows, cypresses, sandy banks, pea gravel, big chunk rocks, and lots of buckbrush, and the avid crappie angler would probably agree that this lake can boast an impressive range of eminently fishable crappie habitat -- indeed, that's so much the case that no single area dominates the others in Phillips' mind.
"A person that doesn't know anything about the lake can go in with good electronics, motor around boathouses, and find brushpiles," he observed. "You can find a brushpile on pretty much every boat house that is there."
While Phillips acknowledges that the coming springtime morning crappie bite can last until lunchtime, he prefers the evening bite, when the crappie crank up again. "In the evening, they'll head for the bank to feed right when the sun is going down," Phillips said. "I've had some memorable trips in the spring -- and some pretty good eating afterwards."
One reason for the angler's bullish take on Fort Gibson is the size of the crappie that he regularly pulls from that water. "You can absolutely catch a legit 2-pounder," Phillips asserted. "When they adjusted the length limit, it has done wonders for the lake -- and you can really catch some big slabs in there."
How does Phillips fish Gibson and its crappie brushpiles? Since most crappie are a pound or better, he opts for light spinning gear and 4-pound-test monofilament line with a jighead tied on.
"I like to fish jigs at Gibson," he said. "My favorite is feathered jigs. Typically, I'll go no more than 1/8 ounce if they are deep, and generally when they are shallower, I'll use a 1/16-ounce jig. I like that red jighead with a chartreuse body and white feathers -- that's my favorite."
Still, Phillips admitted, plenty of big slabs fall to those using minnows and slip-bobbers, so in some respects it's six one way and half a dozen the other. What isn't up for debate is that Gibson offers superb crappie fishing within an easy 30- to 45-minute drive of downtown Tulsa.
"Actually, we're talking about doing that tomorrow -- bailing out of the office to go fishing," he said.
As suggested above, Fort Gibson isn't the only topnotch slab water within easy driving distance of T-Town that reliably induces anglers like Phillips to play hooky. Lying an easy 30- to 45-minute drive to the northeast of downtown Tulsa is 29,500-acre Oologah Lake.
"It's another lake that I can take off work early and go fish late in the afternoon in the spring," Phillips remarked. "The south end of the lake is fairly deep, while the north end contains a lot of mudflats and standing timber. You've really got to watch what you're doing in navigating on that end of the lake, since you can be 200 yards off a bank and still hit a mudflat. It can be dangerous in such places. Plus, you have got to watch out for floating timber, stumps, stickups and other such stuff."
On his favored south end, Phillips said, will be found plenty of chunk rock, steep banks, pea gravel, and sloping banks covered in buckbrush. Combine with this a wealth of state-installed brushpiles, and, the angler stated, Oologah lacks in no way for profitable sites at which to fish for crappie.
"In my opinion, the better crappie fishing is anywhere south of the Winganon Bridge, which pretty much splits the lake in half," Phillips said. "Sure, you can find crappie above the bridge, but I tend to focus on areas below it, like Spencer Creek, Blue Creek and some of the water intake pipes found on the south end of the lake."
According to Phillips, the water intake areas on Oologah are really popular, and for good reason: Crappie can be caught deep and shallow around them. (Be sure to check local regulations concerning fishing around such structures).
If there's a downside to Oologah's crappie fishing, it's that the typical sacs-Ã -lait from this reservoir run, according to Phillips, a bit more to the diminutive. "They tend to be smaller crappie on Oologah," he said. "The bigger crappie, in my opinion, tend to come out of the Verdigris River area."
Phillips has heard of anglers having success with landing good-sized crappie from oxbows near the Verdigris -- places in which, he reports, all kinds of laydowns, slick logs, and stumps are to be found. Such spots, he added, can be fantastic for springtime slabs up to the 1 1/2-pound range.
"Those are good places to catch fish for the fryer," he said, "although maybe not the big trophy. Feather jigs and minnows both work pretty well here, I just like it when they'll hit that jig."
SLAB CRAPPIE FISHING TECHNIQUES
Without a doubt, Kuklinski noted, the spring months -- particularly mid-April through the middle to end of May -- are prime for targeting crappie at just about any Sooner State crappie hole. But, he said, anglers should begin to get after these tasty slabs now, not later. "They will generally begin to get to areas of deep water adjacent to these historical spawning areas in late February," the biologist explained.
In fact, during these days crappie will begin to stage in very tight bunches just about anywhere that you can find deeper water close to shallow, particularly where a change in bottom composition is present.
"They will often suspend in 12 to 15 feet of water over 20-foot depths," Kuklinski said. "As the water warms, they will progressively move shallower toward the spawning flats." He noted that either minnows or 1/16- or 1/8-ounce leadhead jigs tipped with 2-inch Sassy Shads or Mister Twister curlytail grubs -- or even tube jigs -- will lure these pre-spawn crappie to bite.
One key consideration from now until the end of the crappie spawn: If you're not finding active fish, move on until you do. "February is about the time people can start seeing fish on locators," Kuklinski offered. "Big schools of suspended fish. When you start catching them then, they are tightly schooled and really bunched up. The more productive crappie anglers don't spend a lot of time over a school if they are not catching them. If you don't catch anything in 5 or 10 minutes, then move on to find active fish. But if you start catching one or two fish, and they are bunched up really well, you can pull a lot of fish out if you have the right lure."
Clearly, water temperature is and will be a prime consideration for crappie anglers. "The areas to key in on are areas where the water is going to warm up faster -- something that gets a lot of sun exposure like the north side of some of the coves," Kuklinski said, noting that even a degree or two can make a treme
ndous difference. "Any area that warms up faster but has deep water adjacent to those areas, you're more likely to find these schools staging outside of those areas."
Of course, as spring arrives in full force, and water temps warm into the low-to-mid 60s, crappie will begin to move shallow and get even more active. By the time water temperatures have actually moved into the mid-60s on up to the lower 70s, crappie will be near the bank, spawning in 6 feet of water or less, Such are the days that see springtime slab fishing at its best.
But with crappie willing to bite from now on through late springtime waiting just a hop, skip, and a jump from downtown Oklahoma City and Tulsa, what more could an angler dreaming of a slab-centric fish fry ask for?